Ironically enough, when my husband and I first knew that we wanted to have a baby, being a freelancer seemed like the worst idea ever. After all, grown-ups had grown-up jobs, right? They had benefits and salaries and paid leave. I spent much of my adult life chasing down that perfect “big girl job,” the one that would offer enough stability for me to be able to take care of my family.
Like many people my age, however, I was surprised and dismayed to learn that, well, there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot out there for me or for anyone else. Even when I had jobs I loved, I couldn’t qualify or pay for benefits. I found myself frequently in a better situation when I wasn’t working full-time than when I was. Furthermore, higher paychecks frequently came with more stress, and I quickly realized that most of the jobs I had worked in wouldn’t allow me the flexibility I needed to prioritize my family.
Having been sold the same dream as everyone else in my country and in my generation, I had never really stopped to consider what I wanted for myself. Stability was only important to me insofar as it allowed me to take care of myself, my well-being and my family. What I really valued was flexibility. I wanted to take on interesting projects with people I liked, doing work that challenged me, and pay the bills. I also wanted to be able to pick my daughter up from school, take as many vacation days as I wanted to, work from home when it made sense, take midday naps and yoga classes, and make use of the times when my creativity was at its best–not when I had been told to clock in.
So now, as I prepare for the birth of our second child, it looks much different than it did the first time around. This time there is no formal maternity leave policy–a blessing and a curse. I have to trust that at thirty(!) years old, I’ve finally learned how to balance my self-care with the desire to create work and income for my family.
Here’s my checklist for preparing for leave as a freelancer:
1. Create a to-do list. Break that list up into things that must get done before you have the baby and things that could be handled after. See what can be outsourced or maybe just dropped entirely.
2. Decide at what point you will no longer accept new projects. As a web developer, I decided that I would not take any new websites in the month before my due date. This gave me time to clear my plate and troubleshoot last minute issues that always seem to pop up. Give yourself a minimum amount of time that you will sit on your ass before accepting new clients again.
3. Examine your finances. Can you afford to take off? If so, for how long? Looking at our savings and my husband’s income, we decided that it made sense for me to stop accepting new projects but to continue some low-pressure relationships with some others. That way, I can continue to “work” a handful of hours a week without the stress of building from scratch.
4. Look at what the next few months have in store. One of my largest clients has an amazing speaking opportunity coming up for her in November that I plan to help her prepare for and execute. I know that my leave will “officially” be over then. I can choose to slowly build up towards that time, or come back shortly before and hit the ground running. Knowing what is ahead helps me plan for childcare and my own recovery.
5. Set a plan for your well-being. Having the flexibility of a freelance business can cause you to work 24/7, especially when you’re concerned about staying relevant and profitable. Your first priority is the well-being of yourself and your newborn. For me, I’ve broken this down into the following golden rules:
– Sleep like it’s my job.
– Outsource/deliver/ask for help whenever possible.
– Exercise a little bit every day (a walk around the block helps).
– Keep a finger on my emotional pulse.
– Stay consistent with therapy.
– Eat nourishing food and drink plenty of water.
– Seek out the company of positive people.
– Cut the to-do list to half of what I think it should be.
Trying to balance self-employment with an extended amount of time off to care for yourself and a newborn requires extraordinary effort and a commitment to be honest with yourself every step of the way. I’m honestly excited and nervous about it. While I know that I can easily dip into burnout, the benefit of striking the right balance can’t be overstated. I’m building a life that supports my family, not asking my family to fit into my life. I love continuing to move ahead and redefine the pace that works for us at every season in life. I wouldn’t trade it for any salary in the world.